Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir was born in Melaka in 1795. Although he had Arabic and Indian blood, he deemed himself a Malay. His father was strict and Abdullah was brought up as a scholar, studying Arabic, Tamil, Hindustani, English and, of course, Malay.
He started his career with his father, copying documents and writing petitions. He later taught Malay to Indian soldiers and British and American missionaries. Abdullah was also interpreter and scribe to Sir Stamford Raffles, for whom he had high regard. His proficiency in languages and reputation as a teacher earned him the nickname Munshi, meaning Malay tutor.
Abdullah assisted the Christian missionaries in translating and printing the gospels in Malay. He also translated Hindu folktales. However, he is best known for his autobiographical work, Hikayat Abdullah (Abdullah’s Story). It was written between 1840 and 1843 and published in 1849. It is an important source of the early history of Singapore soon after it was founded by Raffles. His other book, Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah (The Tale of Abdullah’s Voyage), describes his experiences on a trip from Singapore to Kelantan in 1838.
Abdullah was the first Malay writer to depart from traditional Malay literary style by writing in colloquial language. Unlike courtly writing, it was realistic and lively, incorporating many Malay idioms and proverbs. In the words of A. E. Cooper, who translated Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah, “his direct ‘reporting’ acts as a pleasant cool douche after the lushness of Malay romances.
Abdullah died suddenly in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1852 during his pilgrimage to Mecca. His diary of this last journey was published posthumously. The writings of Munshi Abdullah remain an inspiration for modern Malay literature.